Charles E. Coughlin
Throughout the 1930s, Charles E. Coughlin was one of the most influential men in the United States. He was a Catholic priest in the metro Detroit area who became politically active. Foreshadowing modern talk radio and televangelism, Coughlin led radio broadcasts that reached tens of millions listeners. He broadcast religious services with political overtones and expressed antisemitic views. He also voiced pro-Nazi opinions that made him a person of interest for the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1942.
Charles Coughlin was a Canadian-American Catholic priest and populist leader who promoted antisemitic and pro-fascist views.
In the 1930s, Father Coughlin was one of the most influential public figures in the United States. Tens of millions of people listened to his weekly radio broadcasts.
Following a 1942 FBI investigation, Coughlin’s activities were curtailed by both US authorities and the Catholic Church.
Charles Coughlin (1891–1979) was born on October 25, 1891, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Coughlin graduated from the University of Toronto in 1911. He then attended St. Basil's Seminary in Toronto. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1916.
Coughlin's Background and Views
Coughlin's views as a priest were influenced by late eighteenth century Catholic teachings emphasizing conservative clerical activism. His views were also shaped by the Basilian Order to which he belonged. Founded in France in the early nineteenth century, the Basilians studied medieval church doctrine in the context of fierce opposition to modern economic and social developments. They believed that the Church should return to its theological roots. Among other issues, they called for the Church to restore the prohibition against usury. Many Basilians regarded the practice of usury as a main source of the ills that afflicted modern society.
Such views blended with antisemitism in Coughlin's radio broadcasts throughout his career. In a 1930 broadcast, Coughlin attributed the current economic problems to those who profited from usury. He stated, “We have lived to see the day that modern Shylocks have grown fat and wealthy, praised and deified, because they have perpetuated the ancient crime of usury under the modern racket of statesmanship.” Coughlin left the Basilian Order in 1918. He then became a diocesan priest in the diocese of Detroit.
From 1916 to 1923, Coughlin was on the faculty at Assumption College in Sandwich (now Windsor), Ontario, Canada. After a chance meeting with Michael Gallagher, the bishop of the diocese of Detroit, he was given the opportunity to establish a new parish in Royal Oak, Michigan. This church—the Shrine of the Little Flower—served as the center of Coughlin's operations for the next forty years.
In October 1926, Coughlin broadcast his first radio address. His broadcasts originally taught catechism classes for children. However, he soon moved on to broadcasting religious services with political overtones. By the time of the 1929 stock market crash, Coughlin had a large, loyal audience. He had gained the reputation of a spokesperson for the “common man.” In 1930, he launched a crusade against communism. His message drew upon his own fear and that of others that a communist influence was spreading in the United States.
Coughlin and Franklin D. Roosevelt
Having become a US citizen while in Detroit, Coughlin was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Coughlin believed that only Roosevelt could pull the United States out of the Great Depression and protect the country from the perceived communist threat. Coughlin used his radio program—The Hour of Power—to persuade his followers to vote for Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential elections. Roosevelt was distrustful of Coughlin from the beginning and only wanted his endorsement to help get elected.
Once president, Roosevelt appeared to ignore Coughlin's contribution to his successful bid for the presidency. He slowly distanced his administration from Coughlin's unpolished populism. Nevertheless, Roosevelt continued to use Coughlin's influence to help garner public support for the New Deal. Initially, Coughlin overestimated his importance to the administration. He used his radio program to support the New Deal and to attack those opposed to it. When he realized that he was not going to play a key role in Roosevelt's cabinet, however, Coughlin felt betrayed. After several attempts to get the President to notice him, he turned on Roosevelt. By the end of 1935, Coughlin used his radio program to attack both the President and the New Deal.
Throughout the 1930s, Coughlin was one of the most influential men in the United States. A new post office was constructed in Royal Oak just to process the letters that he received each week—80,000 on average. Furthermore, the audience of his weekly radio broadcasts was in the tens of millions, foreshadowing modern talk radio and televangelism.
National Union for Social Justice
In 1935, Coughlin created the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ) as a political action group that would represent the interests of his listeners in Washington, DC. By the 1936 presidential election the NUSJ had more than one million paying members.
In 1936, Coughlin founded a journal entitled Social Justice. The publication provided another venue to promote his populist ideology. The NUSJ tabled 16 principles as guidelines for their program for the United States. These included:
- liberty of conscience and education;
- nationalization of resources too important to be held by individuals;
- abolition of the Federal Reserve Board;
- return to Congress the right to coin and regulate money;
- rights of workers to organize unions;
- requisition of wealth and conscription of men in times of war;
- and the principle that human rights should outweigh property rights.
Coughlin was ahead of his time in splitting his ticket. He supported some issues associated with the left (such as federal support to prop up the dollar) and others with the right (such as “America First” foreign policy).
Coughlin's Antisemitic Views
During the 1920s, Coughlin’s antisemitic views were muted on the air. After his split with Roosevelt and with the rise of National Socialism and fascism in Europe, however, he attacked Jews explicitly in his broadcasts. Some historians attribute this change to Coughlin taking advantage of rising antisemitism around the world in order to keep himself relevant. Based on his speeches, writings, and associations, however, he appears to have had significant antisemitic sentiment throughout his career.
In the days and weeks after Kristallnacht, Coughlin defended the state-sponsored violence of the Nazi regime. He argued that Kristallnacht was justified as retaliation for Jewish persecution of Christians. He explained to his listeners on November 20, 1938, that the “communistic government of Russia,” “the Lenins and Trotskys…atheistic Jews and Gentiles,” had murdered more than 20 million Christians and had stolen “40 billion [dollars]…of Christian property.”
For years Coughlin publicly derided “international bankers,” a phrase that most of his listeners understood to mean Jewish bankers. Such antisemitic views were expressed on the pages of Social Justice. In a series of articles published in 1938, Coughlin lambasted “Jewish” financiers and their control over world politics. These articles culminated with a story recounting his own version of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This antisemitic publication falsely purported to be minutes from meetings of Jewish leaders who were plotting to take over the world.
Shift Toward the Far Right
As war approached, Coughlin's politics shifted further toward the right. He promoted fascist dictatorship and authoritarian government as the only cure for the ills of democracy and capitalism. He associated with fascist leaders and known antisemitic thinkers in the Anglo-American world, including:
- US auto manufacturer Henry Ford;
- Dennis Fahey, professor at Holy Ghost Missionary College of Dublin, Ireland, and supporter of the French fascist movement Action Française, which aimed to establish an anti-modern, authoritarian, and antisemitic regime in France;
- Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists;
- Hilaire Belloc, an Anglo-French novelist, poet, and debater whose book The Jews listed Jews as a distinct racial group that could never assimilate in Europe;
- and Ezra Pound, a US poet who spouted antisemitic statements and developed an admiration of Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
The Christian Front
In a 1938 broadcast, Coughlin helped inspire and publicize the creation of a political association called the Christian Front. A militia-like organization, the Front promised to defend the country from communists and Jews.
The Front organized “Buy Christian” rallies throughout the country. In New York City, police arrested several militiamen from the organization for harassing Jews on the street. Many of these Jews were seniors, women, and children. With time, the Christian Front’s language became increasingly violent. It made national news in 1940 when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested 18 members in Brooklyn, New York, on suspicion of conspiring to overthrow the government. Its members continued to attract headlines during the early 1940s for violent acts against Jews.
Coughlin was an isolationist from the beginning of his career. During World War II, he blamed Jews for inciting the strife in Europe. He vigorously opposed any foreign interventions by the United States government. Even after the Japanese navy and air force attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Coughlin denounced the entry of the United States into World War II. He claimed that Jews had planned the war for their own benefit and had conspired to involve the United States.
This last missive proved to be his undoing. The US Government had been tracking Coughlin even before Pearl Harbor. In September 1941, Coughlin’s request for a passport was denied by the US State Department. The reason for the denial was given as: “reported pro-Nazi.”
Coughlin's comments after Pearl Harbor and changing public sentiment towards entry into the war gave the government its opportunity to restrict his political activities. In 1942, FBI agents raided Coughlin's church and seized all parish records and personal papers. During the investigation, US Attorney General Francis Biddle argued that Coughlin's magazine, Social Justice, had repeated in the United States “the lines of enemy propaganda warfare being waged against this country from abroad.”
US authorities permitted Coughlin to continue publishing his magazine. However, he was prohibited from using the US Postal Service to disseminate it. On May 1, 1942, Archbishop Edward Mooney, the new leader of the Catholic Church in Detroit, instructed Coughlin to cease all non-pastoral activities on pain of being defrocked.
Coughlin's Retirement and Death
Coughlin continued to oversee the Shrine of the Little Flower until his retirement in 1966. He died in 1979.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations may have moved citizens to listen to and agree with Father Coughlin?
- How can citizens respond responsibly to demagogues like Coughlin, who usually inflame divisions and denigrate groups in society?
Warren, Donald. Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin the Father of Hate Radio. New York: The Free Press, 1996.
Marcus, Sheldon. Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973.
Coughlin, Charles. The Fine Art of Propaganda: A Study of Father Coughlin's Speeches. Edited by Alfred McClung Lee and Elizabeth Briant Lee. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, c1939.